A Film a Week - The Uncle / Stric

 previously published on Cineuropa

Ah, Christmas… An endless amount of effort and constant anxiety attacks for all members of the household, all for the sake of fitting in with the socially imposed ideals of celebration and “holiday spirit”. The work and the anxiety are doubled if it’s a larger gathering, and you can triple it if a rich relative from abroad is coming, as a real show must be put on. This particular Christmas gathering with an uncle coming from Germany to socialist Croatia (then part of Yugoslavia) in the 1980s, as envisioned by Andrija Mardešić and David Kapac in their feature debut, The Uncle, which has opened the new Proxima competition at Karlovy Vary, is something that will not be easily forgotten.

The family, consisting of the father (Goran Bogdan, very active recently in Croatian, regional and even global cinema), the mother (Ivana Roščić, of Mare and Tereza37 fame) and their twenty-something son (the young and talented Roko Sikavica), are awaiting the titular uncle (star actor Predrag Miki Manojlović, best known for his collaborations with Emir Kusturica on the filmmaker’s earlier works). Once he arrives in his blue Mercedes, the spectacle incorporating religious overtones and nationalist undertones begins. Not everything is perfect: the turkey is undercooked and the cookies are burnt, the son is acting like a teenager for some reason, and the authoritative uncle is too condescending towards the family and visibly displeased with some of their questions. Other strange “glitches” do appear in that 1980s reality, which cast doubt on whether anything in this constructed setting is real.

As it turns out, it is not. It is a show “written and directed” by the uncle, who knows exactly what he wants, but doesn’t have the skills to make it happen. Repeating itself in circles day after day, this show conceals a far more sinister plot of emotional and mental, and sometimes even physical, abuse.

The duo’s filmmaking influences are pretty obvious, from the works of Michael Haneke (especially Funny Games) to Yorgos Lanthimos (most notably Dogtooth, but The Uncle sometimes ends up in darker, less well-charted territory that we have not yet seen in Croatian cinema. Their attention to detail, constructing the reality of the late-1980s and early-1990s Croatian emigrant workers posing as dissidents while flying a nationalistic and hyper-religious flag, is commendable, as it is obvious from the production and costume design, the fitting choice of synth musical score composed by Miro Manojlović and the VHS segments masterfully edited into the largely digitally shot material. The crisp cinematography by Miloš Jaćimović (Ivan Ikić’s Barbarians and Oasis) adds a layer or two of coldness to this atmospheric piece.

Mardešić and Kapac are also pretty good at working with the actors. Miki Manojlović still has the star power of an actor in his prime and can now dive headfirst into playing the malevolent figure. Bogdan and Roščić have some convincing chemistry together as a cowardly father and a mother on the verge of a breakdown, respectively, while Sikavica channels weirdness and helplessness convincingly.

However, there is a problem with the circular structure and the number of repetitions, which results in complications when it comes to the drip-feeding of the information revealed, the twists and turns, and the gradual changes in the atmosphere. Indeed, the entire middle part of the film, from the end of the first repetition to the last couple, drags on and feels a tad repetitive. Nevertheless, The Uncle is an intriguing debut that showcases the talents of its two creators, and which will surely surprise domestic and international audiences.

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